Frederick Douglas’ Identity as a “Slave in Form” vs. “Slave in Fact”

“I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact” – Frederick Douglas

In his autobiographical narrative, this sentiment is noted by Douglas as the, “turning point in my career as a slave”, an immensely powerful statement on his ideas of autonomy and self-determination.  By fighting and actively resisting Covey’s attempts to suppress him, Douglas “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood”. Interestingly, this stalwart rejection of the institutionalized racism did not fully carry over into his political philosophy.

There has been a long-standing debate since the Reconstruction era-between the camps of Du Bois and Douglas on how to best uplift people of African descent in American society.  Despite his first-hand experience with the horrors of slavery, Douglas favored an approach of quiet, intellectual integration with mainstream (read: White) society.  Du Bois saw this as an erasure of the historical wrongs perpetrated against black people, and instead proposed a preservation of the African diaspora and creating a parallel culture for African Americans.  The difference lies in the fact that both men were products of their times.

Douglas lived as a slave for around twenty years of his life. One would think that this direct contact with slavery would lead him to be all the more bitter about the repression of African Americans, yet he did not seem to want to “rock the boat”, so to speak, as much as Du Bois.  I believe this attitude is the result of his realism about the context of his time, and the lack of a transparent black culture in America.  Much of what slave-owners did to control blacks was separate and crack down on slaves who were too “friendly” with each other, the fear being that they might start to be “discontent” with their condition as slaves.  Therefore in Douglas’ time, there was no real concept of a unified black culture in America, beyond the context of being slaves.  Du Bois is simply a continuation of philosophy in a different time, and comparing the two side-by-side did more harm than good in the black community at the turn of the century.

The quote clearly reflects that Douglas was not as passive as some interpretations of his outlook have painted him.  In rejecting the concept of slavery on a personal level, Douglas had achieved a personal revolution which could not be quelled by any amount of beating or humiliation.

Whitman’s “Barbaric Yawp”

Whitman makes his intentions clear very early into “Song of Myself”, the opening line being, “I celebrate myself”.  From the start, the reader is warned that this poem will not be esoteric or removed in any way.  When Whitman furthers this point by declaring his poem to be his “barbaric yawp”, the modern reader may not be as certain about the diction as the author is.

To start where every decent analysis of diction starts, you’ve gotta go to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Now most of us are familiar enough with the connotations of “barbaric”, but a look at the etymology available reveals a French origin.  What use would Whitman have for such a derisive, courtly word in describing his work, and by extension, himself?  The truth is, Whitman liked to imagine himself as a rogue, a rough-and-tumble working man’s poet.  This is evidenced by the portrait he chose to grace the inside cover of Leaves of Grass, and his lower middle-class origins.  Apparently, the New York Times even went so far as to call him “The Bowery B’hoy Poet” in a review of Leaves of Grass, solidifying this as the public image of Whitman.

Far more antiquated than “barbaric”, is “yawp”.  According to the OED, there is no set region that the word emerged from, but is echoic, meaning that it began as an imitation of the sound of nature.  It’s closest living cousin for American English is “yelp”, and the primary definition for “yawp” is:

“To shout or exclaim hoarsely; to yelp, as a dog; to cry harshly or querulously, as a bird.”

This ties in rather nicely with the antecedent “barbaric” and the idea of a poem being a verbal expression of one’s self.

Of course, left to Whitman, he combines the two; simultaneously deprecating himself, his art, and artistic expression on the whole.  The purpose of this is to alight Whitman’s creativity.  By declaring his work to be a barbaric yawp, Whitman takes the pressure off himself to perform in the traditional literary sense, and actively hedges against criticism from the literati of his day declaring his work to be pointless rambling. This “barbaric yawp” is what allows modern readers to identify a poem as a poem in the absence of any rhyme, meter, or recognizable form.

Whitman- “Song of Myself”

“Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog
     with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”

Walt Whitman is rightly known as the master of Americana (with a possible challenge from Mark Twain, but I’d say that they’re different enough that there’s room enough for both of them).  “Song of Myself” reads somewhere between a memoir, a diary, and a manifesto. The lines I chose are harbingers of a turning point in the narrative tone of the text, marking the turn of the “eye” inward on the speaker’s own perception.

Preceding these lines are short, vignette-like fragments, (snapshots if you disregard the anachronism) of distinctly American characters going about their private lives in public space.  Whitman never lingers very long on these figures, preferring to maintain the speaker’s distance.  The result is an atmosphere of loneliness and longing, and the implication that the speaker is trying to imagine more about these character’s thoughts and feelings, but has to resign due to his knowledge that this is an ultimately futile effort.  These lines are the speaker’s epiphany of a new method.

The actual content of the first phrase of the sentence is an interesting mix of concrete and abstract thought, further driving home the idea of a shift in thought.  “Backwards I see in my own days” carries a double meaning here, depending on the connotation.  Either the speaker is looking back through the vaults of his memory, aware that in hindsight he is distorting the reality of the past, or he sees his own past attitudes and thoughts as backwards in the sense that they are antiquated in current times.  Taken with either reading, the next segment, “where I sweated through fog of linguists and contenders” is indicative of a time of confusion and struggle.  The speaker’s affirmation in response to this thought is that “I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait”.  Taken on the whole, the sentence is a rejection of the traditions of academic analysis (i.e. “linguists” and “contenders”) and a pledge of devotion to the subjective reality of the self.

The rest of the poem is rooted in the idea that subjective perception is as valuable as objective analysis, in a sense harkening back to American individualism.  While this is not the most linguistically rich phrase in “Song of Myself”, it is the most telling of the author, and lays out his goals in the coming text.

Calder’s Classy Class Blog

Hi there,

If you’re reading this, I hope to every known or unknown deity that you’re also taking ENG 258.01 at SF State, and this isn’t, say, on the news as my last known public posting before I disappeared following a tragic baking accident.  They’d probably use that one photo of me eating a pie very messily.

Anyhow, my name is Calder, I’m from Oakland, CA.  I went to Oakland School for the Arts with an emphasis in lit.  I play bass and have a cat named Daisy.  I’m operating under the incredibly misguided impression that this is meaningful information about me.  It’ll have to do for now.

 

Anyhow, here’s to another semester.